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Copyright The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (forthcoming, 2005)
Jeff Kaplan, Bron Taylor & Samuel S. Hill, eds.


“I never could meet with anybody that pretended to say what their private faith and religion may be” (Hoyland, 1816:25).

“They have, as a people, no religion” (Roberts, 1836:xvij).

“The lack of religious ideas, and the want of a peculiar system of worship among the Gipsies, constitute remarkable features in the history of this strange people” (Morwood, 1885:281-282).

“They cannot be said to have a religion of their own” (Greenfeld, 1977:52).

“Romani traditions . . . are complex enough to be mistaken for their own religion” (Dellal, 1999)

If religion is popularly perceived—as it so often is—to include a place of worship, a clergy and a set of holy scriptures, then it is easy to understand why observers such as Hoyland, Roberts, Morwood, Greenfeld, and others should have reached the conclusions they did.  If, on the other hand the usual dictionary definition is adhered to, such as Webster’s “belief in a divine or superhuman power or powers to be obeyed and worshiped as the creator(s) and ruler(s) of the universe [and the] expression of this belief in conduct and ritual” (1966:1228) or Encarta’s “particular institutionalized or personal system of beliefs or practices relating to the divine” (1999:1516), then it is clear that they were wrong.

Romanies, often incorrectly referred to as “Gypsies,” descend from a migration out of India in the early years of the 11th century.  This exodus was prompted by a succession of raids led by Mohammed of Ghazni between 1000 AD and 1027 AD in his attempt to spread Islam into Northern India. The Hindu response was to assemble military forces known as Rajputs, conscripted from various language groups, though ones close enough to share the same genetic descent.  The linguistic nature of the Romani language strongly suggests that it began as a composite military lingua franca (under the same circumstances that gave rise to the Urdu language), and for which the name Rajputic has been proposed.  This only later crystallized into an ethnic mother-tongue when the troops and their camp-followers reached Anatolia and began to marry within the group and produce new generations of children.  Because the first written account of the appearance of Romanies in the Byzantine Empire dates from 1054 AD, we can assume that it was reached within fifty years or less of leaving India. If so, it was over two centuries before their descendants finally entered Europe—again because of the spread of Islam, this time towards the West.

It was during the time spent in the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire that the Romani people and the Romani language came into existence.  Greek words in the language are second only to those of Indian origin, and they are found in all areas of the vocabulary, even in the numerals.

It is not difficult to understand why outside observers were uniformly convinced that Romanies have no religion.  Apart from there being no tangible evidence—a sacred text, a temple or a priest for example—Romani society is tightly closed to outsiders, considerably reducing the opportunity to observe cultural behavior at close quarters.  Ethnographers attempting to enter Romani households report being kept at arm’s length by various means, even by being met at the door with feigned epileptic seizures or frightening explosions of profanity. But it is in fact one of the aspects of  Romani religious belief which keeps that barrier in place.

So entrenched is the idea that Romanies lack a religion, that it has become a part of European folklore:  the story that “the gypsies have little or no, if any, religion . . . their church was constructed of curds or lard and the dogs ate it” (de Peyster, 1887:58) is widespread; Block repeated it half a century later: “the gypsies, it is said, once possessed a church of their own built of cream cheese.   On one occasion, however, when they were particularly hungry, they ate the church and for this reason are now without a national religion” (1938:234).

Because Romanies come ultimately from India, it is in Hinduism that the roots of their religion are to be found.  However, awareness of this has become lost over the centuries and is only now being relearnt by Romanies today. Likewise the daily cultural behavior in which Indian-based spiritualism (called Rromanipen) manifests itself so clearly is not recognized as such; asked what his religion is, a Romani is likely to say Orthodox or Roman Catholic, Mormon, Muslim or Bahá’í or any one of the non-indigenous faiths acquired, voluntarily or not, since arrival in the West.

Woodcock, like so many others, was wrong when he wrote that “The gipsies . . . are utterly without religious impressions  . . . they brought with them no Indian idols . . . nor indeed Indian rites or observances, for no trace of such are to be discovered amongst them” (1865:84).  While Kounavine claimed to have found Brahma, Indra, Lakshmi and other Hindu deities continuing to be worshipped by name among Romanies in Russia  (Elysseeff, 1882), this has been shown to be fabricated.  Nevertheless other connections with Hinduism are in evidence, although the names of only three deities have survived: Sara-Kali, Vayu and Maruthi.  Shiva’s trident, called trishula in Sanskrit, changed its role from Hindu symbol to Christian symbol and has become the Romani word for “cross” (trušul).  This probably happened when the migration first reached Armenia; in the Lomavren language trusul means both “church” and “priest.”  Similarly, rašaj “(Christian) holy man” represents a shift of meaning from Sanskrit arseya “of a (Hindu) holy man.”  The word for “God” is Devel, (from Sanskrit devata ‘divinity,’ compare Hindu dev), while the Devil is known as o Beng (from a Munda root meaning a malevolent spirit).

Some Romani groups in Europe today appear to maintain elements of Shaktism or goddess-worship; the Rajputs worshipped the warrior-goddess Parvati, another name for the female deity Sati-Sara, who is Saint Sarah, the Romani Goddess of Fate. That she forms part of the yearly pilgrimage to La Camargue at Stes. Maries de la Mer in the south of France is of particular significance; here she is carried into the sea just as she is carried into the waters of the Ganges each December in India. Both Sati-Sara and St. Sarah wear a crown, both are also called Kali, and both have shining faces painted black.  Sati-Sara is a consort of the god Ðiva, and is known by many other names, Bhadrakali, Uma, Durga and Syama among them. 

The names of two India deities have been preserved in some Romani riddles.  Reference to the Vedic god of the wind and the air, Vayu (also called Marut), is retained in a number of these: Kana hulavel peske bal o Vajo, legenisavol e čar (“When Vayu combs his hair, the grass sways”), Amaro Vajo hurjal tela savorrenge podji, aj konik našti t’astarel les (“Our Vayu flies under everyone’s petticoats, and no one can catch him”), O pharo vurdon e Vajosko cirdajlo ekhe šele grastendar kaj phurden ande’l rrutunja (“Vayu’s heavy wagon is pulled by a hundred horses blowing through their nostrils”); the answer to each is e balval “the wind.”  In Indian theology the task of Vayu’s son Maruti (also called Hanuman) is to tear open the clouds and let the rain fall, and in Romani the expression marutisjol o Devel means “the sky [lit. “God”] is growing overcast.”  The reference to a hundred horses may also be of Vedic origin; there are several references in the scriptures to the aÑvamedha yajña or “horse sacrifice,” whereby in ancient India the king would release one hundred horses to roam freely through his kingdom.  Stopping them or blocking their path was forbidden. 

The female spirits or fates, in Romani called the vursitorja, hover in its presence three days after a child is born to determine its destiny and to influence the choice of name the parents will decide upon.  They may be compared with the Indian matrka or “little mother” spirits who also possess a baby’s destiny at the time of its birth.  The red thread (the loli dori) tied around a newborn’s ankle or wrist and worn for two or three years afterwards to guard against the jakhalo or ‘evil eye’ reflects the protective properties of that color, which is also worn or painted on the body in India.

The burning of one’s possessions after death and even, among some populations at least into the 20th Century, the ritual suicide of the widow, which has striking parallels with sati in India.

Time spent in the non-Romani world (the jado) drains spiritual energy or dji. Sampson (1926:257) gives the various meanings of this word as “[s]eat of the emotions, heart, soul; temper, disposition, mood; courage, spirit,” comparing it to Sanskrit jiva, Hindi ji, “life, soul, spirit, mind.”  In some dialects it has the additional meaning of “stomach.” One’s spiritual batteries can only be recharged by spending time in an all-Romani environment—in the normal course of events, in family homes. It is in the area of spiritual and physical well-being (baxt) that the Indian origin of the Romani people is most clearly seen.

 In the preparation of food, and in one’s personal hygiene and deportment, it is absolutely essential that a separation between “pure” and “polluted” conditions be maintained.  A pure state is achieved by maintaining spiritual “balance” or what is called karma in India (and in Romani kintala, or in some dialects kintari or kintujmos) in one’s life and avoiding shame (ladžav or ladž), being declared unclean or, in extreme cases, being shunned by the community. Maintaining balance or harmony pleases the spirits of the ancestors (the mulé), and they are there to guard one and help one to do it, but if they are displeased, they will mete out punishment by way of retribution (prikaza).  Depending upon the nature of the transgression, this may be mild, e.g. stubbing one’s toe, or so severe as to involve sickness and even death. The consequences of prikaza underlie the universal Romani belief that nothing is an accident; that nothing happens simply by chance.

The penalty for extreme pollution is being banished, or made an outcast, and an out-caste, from the community, for which different Romani words are durjardo, gonime or stražime.  “Banishment” is variously durjaripe, gonimos or straža, which may or may not imply a state of pollution, being imposed also for other reasons, e.g. disregard for territorial claims. Being in a state of pollution is being magerdo, marime, pokhelime or makherdo (lit. “smeared,” i.e. with menstrual blood).  These words can be contrasted with melalo which also means “dirty,” but only from physical dirt.

Prikaza brings bad luck (bibaxt) and illness (nasvalipe), and it can be attracted even by socializing with people who are not vuže (< vužo “clean”).  Non-Romani people are not seen as vuže, which is why Romanies avoid contact which is too intimate.  But this is not an inherited condition of non-Romanies, it is because these cultural practices are not maintained.  A non-Romani woman who marries into a Romani family is expected to adopt them, and in doing so becomes in that context vuži

The Ayurvedic concept of ritual purity and ritual pollution, so central to Romani belief, existed in the 11th century caste system and continue to exist today; thus members of the same jati (sub-caste) may eat together without risk of contamination, for example, but will become polluted if they eat with members of other jati; and because the jatis of one’s associates might not always be known, contact between the mouth and the various utensils shared with others at a meal is avoided, just to be on the safe side.  In conservative Romani culture, liquids are poured into the mouth from a container held away from the lips, so that the rim of the vessel (the kerlo) is not touched; smoke from a shared tobacco pipe is drawn through the fist clenched around its stem, again to avoid making contact with the mouth.  The surest way not to touch utensils used by others is to eat with the fingers, and every one of these habits is to be found among Romanies today. 

Like the Rajputs, some Romani groups divide foods into “ordinary” and “auspicious” or “lucky”(baxtalo) categories (the Rajputs’ terms for these two categories mean “cold” and “hot,” though these have nothing to do with either temperature or pepper); this distinction reflects the close relationship between food and health, a particular ingredient being not only beneficial to the physical self but also to the spiritual.   Baxtale xajmata or “auspicious foods” include those which are pungent or strongly flavored, such as garlic, lemon, pickles, peppers, sour cream and so on.  The use of red pepper in some traditional Romani dishes is typical of Rajput cuisine particularly, and such food is called ito or “piquant” in one Romani dialect.  Also in common with Indian culinary behavior, is the practice of not preparing dishes far in advance of their being eaten, and of not keeping left-over food.  Dishes set for the dead at a pomana (wake) table or a slava (saint’s day) table are eventually disposed of by being offered to passers-by, never just thrown away.  There are very many customs associated with food and eating: potatoes (kolompirja) are not eaten at a pomana, comparable with the Rajputs’ religious restriction on eating vegetables that grow below ground at a funereal feast. Serving peanuts is also forbidden at pomeni. There cannot be an even number of chairs at a pomana table; greens (zelenimata) are not eaten while one is in mourning, or expecting a baby or breast-feeding (probably because they induce colic), and so on.  Various Romani populations in Europe and America also maintain nacijange semnura or group symbols, such as the sun (representing e.g. the Serbian Romanies) and the moon (representing the Lovara), which may be found drawn or carved onto the stago or ‘standard’ at a wedding, and on the sèmno or rupuni rovli (‘silver baton’), i.e. the clan leader’s staff, and which are appealed to at the consecration of the mulengi sinìja or ‘table of the dead’ at a pomana.  Here, the invocation is “Khama, „hona thaj Devla, ašun(en) man!” which means “Sun, Moon and God, hear me”.  The significance here is the fact that the Sun and the Moon were the two symbols worn emblematically on the armour and tunics of the Rajput warriors to identify them in battle from all others.

Because access to physicians and hospitals is only sought in extreme cases due to their polluting association, safeguarding the health of the community within the community is of special importance.  Like groups in northern India such as the Banjara, some Romani populations distinguish illnesses which are natural to the group (rromane nasvalimata); these are such things as heart complaints, rashes, vomiting, hiccups, insomnia or irritability, from those which are the result of over-familiarity with the jado or non-Romani world (gadžikane nasvalimata).  These latter include, for example, all sexually-transmitted diseases.  For such afflictions, a non-Romani physician needs to be consulted; but for “Romani afflictions,” traditional cures are provided by a drabarni or female healer.  This is the same as the Hindu siana.  The root of the word drabarni is drab which means “medicine” (from Sanskrit dravya “medication,” compare the Hindi word darb).  It is also the root of the verb drabar- which is usually translated in English as “to tell fortunes,” but which from the Romani perspective means “making well.”  When speaking English, Romanies prefer to call this skill brought from India “advising” rather than “fortune telling,” for which another verb, duriker- exists.

If it is necessary for a person who has contracted a gadžikano nasvalipe to be admitted to hospital, relatives and others will go to him, often in considerable numbers, to provide dji and help restore balance. “Relatives, their relatives, and friends of a Gypsy flock around his hospital bed because [of] their culture” (Anderson & Tighe, 1973:282); only recently have hospital administrations begun to recognize this as cultural behavior and to accommodate it (Salloway, 1973; Shields, 1981; Thomas, 1985).  Depending upon the nature of the non-Romani affliction, the individual may be declared defiled; not visited in hospital but instead banished from the community.  This is invariably the response when this is e.g. syphilis, AIDS, or other such disease.  Infections of this kind are a clear indication of a too-personal involvement in the non-Romani world, since it is assumed that they could never be contracted within the ethnic community.


The journey across the Middle East took place too rapidly for Islam to have had an impact on Romani spiritual belief, as well no doubt because it was the religion of an enemy people.  There is no linguistic impact at all directly from Arabic, and none from Persian’s religious vocabulary.  Nevertheless there are hundreds of thousands of Romanies throughout the Balkans and Turkey who are Muslim, having converted, or having been converted, during the centuries of Ottoman rule in the area.


Zoroastrianism existed in north-west India at the time of the exodus at the beginning of the 11th century, and in Persia through which that migration passed, and a number of writers (Kounavine, Clébert, Wood and Rishi among them) have suggested that Rromanipen has acquired at least some aspects of that religion, particularly its dualism and the significance of fire.  It is unlikely that this was the case, however, given the circumstances of early Romani history, the time and location involved, and the fact that these are also characteristics found in Hinduism.


There are numbers of Romanies who profess the Jewish faith, though in each documented case it has been the result of conversion following marriage to a Jewish spouse.  Reportedly, during the Second World War several Romani-Jewish marriages took place in a concentration camp  (and known as the “marriage camp”) close to the Serbian border, though the fate, and religious persuasion, of any survivors is not known.


The vocabulary of Christianity has inherited two Hindu concepts: rašaj “a priest,” compare Indian rishi “a holy man” and the word for the cross, trušul, which is derived from the word triśula, the god Shiva’s trident.  The Romani word for a church, kangeri, is from the Persian or Hindi word for a battlement, because of a perceived architectural resemblance.  Christianity was first encountered in Armenian-speaking Anatolia, at the eastern end of the Byzantine Empire.  The Romani words for “Easter,” “co-father-in-law,” “incense” and “godfather” are of Armenian origin, all concepts specific to Orthodox Christianity.  Whether it was adopted at that time or not is unknown; in the Christian Byzantine Empire, professing Christianity clearly brought benefits to the outsider Romani population, and later presenting themselves as Christian penants and pilgrims in Europe was also a means of distancing themselves from the Muslim threat.  But in Ottoman Turkey, being Christian was a liability, and the seriousness with which either religion was embraced is open to question.

In Europe, it was not uncommonly the Church that was most openly hostile to Romanies.  In 1568 Pope Pius V banished them from the entire realm of the Holy Roman Empire, and priests in the Eastern Rite church could be excommunicated for performing Romani marriages.  Monasteries in the Romanian principalities were reportedly the cruelest of all towards their slaves, and in western Europe, Romanies were routinely forbidden from entering churches to worship, and had to listen from outside through the windows.   Such incidents are not entirely unheard of today.

Some Romani groups in France relate the story of how Christianity first came to their people.  Originally, they say, the woman leader of a group of Romani metalworkers who lived along the Rhône and whose name was Sara, saw a boat on the river which was sinking.  In it were Saint Mary Salome, Saint Mary Magdalene and Saint Mary Jacobi, the three Marys who comforted Jesus as he died on the cross.  Sara was expecting this since she had seen it in a dream, and she waded out into the water and threw out her cloak which became a raft, and which enabled the three Marys to reach the riverbank safely.  As a reward, they made her their servant, and converted her to Christianity.  This story, however, seems to originate in European, rather than Romani, tradition.  Generally speaking, the Romani population of an area will claim to follow the predominant religion of that area: Protestant in Protestant lands, Roman Catholic in Roman Catholic lands and Orthodox in Orthodox lands.

In the early 1950s in north-western France, a Breton evangelist named Clément le Cossec began preaching  Pentecostal Christianity to Romanies in that region, and it spread rapidly through France and Spain, then the rest of Europe, and to North and South America.  Today, “Born-Again” Pentecostalism is the fastest growing and most widely-found religion among Romanies.  It has been suggested that there are two main reasons for this: first, that it is a church that tells its congregants that they are loved, a personal aspect not characteristic of more formal churches, and a message not formerly heard by Romanies.  Second that, compared with the Roman or Orthodox churches, it is easy to become a pastor, and to establish a church of one’s own.  There are today hundreds of Romani churches, with pastors and congregations who are Romani, who preach in Romani and who even have Romani-language evangelical radio programs and who distribute Romani-language sermons on audiocassette tapes.  Significantly, the growth of “Born-Again” Christianity has caused a split in the Romani population, some of whom believe it is a major factor in the loss of traditional Rromanipen.  One successful Pentecostal church in Dallas, Texas, developed a program which has deliberately integrated references to dualism, balance, ancestral spirits and other aspects of Rromanipen which do not conflict with Christian doctrine, stressing parallels rather than differences.


There are Romanies who have embraced Mormonism, and the Bahá’ái religion has acquired numbers of converts, especially in Spain.  But with the exception of those completely assimilated to the non-Romani world, whatever religion may be professed, it will exist syncretistically with more or fewer elements retained from the original set of beliefs and practices which find their origins in India.


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Block, Martin, 1938.  Gypsies: Their Life and their Customs.  London: Methuen.
Clébert, Jean-Paul, 1963.  The Gypsies.  London: Vista Books.
Dellal, Jasmine, 1999.  American Gypsy: A Stranger in Everybody’s Land. Videodocumentary.  San Francisco: Little Dust Productions.
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Greenfeld, Martin, 1977.  Gypsies.  New York: Crown Publishers.
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Salloway, Jeffrey C., 1973.  “Medical care utilization among urban Gypsies,” Urban Anthropology, 2(1):113-126.
Sampson, John, 1926.  The Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales.  Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
Shields, Marilyn, 1981.  “Selected issues in treating Gypsy patients,” Hospital Physician, 11:85-92.
Thomas, James D., 1985.  “Gypsies and American medical care,” Annals of Internal Medicine, 102(6):842-845.
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Wood, Manfri Fred, 1973.  In the Life of a Romany Gypsy.  London & Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Woodcock, Henry, 1865.  The Gipsies.  London: William Lister.

Ian Hancock
The Romani Archives and Documentation Center
Calhoun Hall 420 – UTA
Austin TX 78712      

August 2001